Thursday, April 10, 2008

...overheard an elderly man grumbling out loud in Bahasa Indonesia, "Orang Malaysia sombong-sombong."

Yet another C&P galore for the day:

Malaysia and Indonesia: Friends or foes?

Sondang Sirait, Jakarta

"Passport." "(Your) flight is at 6 p.m." "Gate number is on the boarding pass."

Those were the three exact sentences seeing me off from Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia. The person speaking was the man behind the Malaysia Airlines counter at Kuala Lumpur International Airport. No smile whatsoever, though ironically all around us were banners with pictures of people smiling, promoting "Visit Malaysia".

The guy at the check-in counter certainly missed his chance to promote this tourism program, as did the people at the security check and immigration counter. No one bothered saying hi or even goodbye, let alone asking how my Malaysian experience was, despite my carrying a foreign passport out in the open. Well, some immigration officials did smile, but among themselves, while chatting.

Forty-five minutes later, waiting for the inter-terminal train, I overheard an elderly man grumbling out loud in Bahasa Indonesia, "Orang Malaysia sombong-sombong." Translation: "Malaysians are arrogant." His son quickly hushed him, afraid someone would hear.

One, it is a fact that there are unresolved grudges among Malaysians and Indonesians. Analyst Tricia Yeoh of the Kuala Lumpur-based Centre for Public Policy recognizes this, and says it has yet to be tackled. As much as relations have been mended on the government level, she says the notion has yet to trickle down to the masses.

For Indonesians, the issues boil down to common stories of Malaysia's maltreatment of Indonesian migrant workers, inhumane actions by the volunteer group RELA in their crackdown on illegal immigrants, cultural copyrights and territorial disputes, to name a few things. In fact, in what is seen as a form of silent protest, a Malaysian human rights activist pointed out to me that Jakarta is taking its time to appoint an ambassador in Kuala Lumpur. The person in charge of the embassy there right now is the DCM, third in line.

As for Malaysians, many are agitated by the fact that many Indonesians are among those involved in crimes in their country. Many also openly address Indonesians as "Indons", which is not exactly respectful. This is unfathomable, since many of these are probably among the same people who enjoy Indonesian sinetron and pop songs on Malaysian TV and airwaves.

Meanwhile, on the Indonesian side, more and more university students and highly skilled workers -- not just construction workers, nannies and housekeepers -- make their way to Malaysia each year.

This means, while bilateral relations are becoming more fruitful, tensions still exist, and if not tended, just might turn existing success stories into failure.

When the son quickly hushed his father underlined an aura of apprehension that I felt during my eight-day stay in the country, something that reminds me of Soeharto's regime.

I arrived in Malaysia in early March, just days before the recent election, right in the heat of the campaigning. I soon found out, as did some fellow Indonesian journalists covering the Malaysian election, that unlike in Indonesia, it was not easy to get people there to open up, especially about politics. And when they do, what they say on-screen is starkly different from what they admit off-screen.

For example, a storekeeper in Little India, Rajesh -- as we shall call him -- told me before the election that he was deeply disappointed at the ruling government under Barisan Nasional.

"Time for someone new," he said, while rearranging the pre-paid phone cards on display at his store. But as soon as the camera was turned on, he changed perspective. He said, "Of course I'm going to vote for the government." Later, when the camera was turned off, he whispered apologetically, "Sorry, tak boleh cakap (I must not say so)."

Rajesh wasn't the only one. V. Gayathry of the Kuala Lumpur-based Centre for Independent Journalism blames this on the country's much-dreaded Internal Security Act. "You say something wrong, you get arrested," she says.

When I did finally find people to speak their minds, it was at opposition rallies, and only there and then. Local media were not much help, either. Almost all are related, if not owned, to the ruling parties and their associates. No airtime or newspaper space was ever adorned with critical views of the government.

So it was really refreshing to learn of the election results, in which Malaysians, though few spoke openly, dared to show their dissatisfaction with the ruling coalition. Opposition leaders say this proves that Malaysians want reformasi.

If there needs to be further testament to what the two countries have in common, it is reformasi, though in different stages. One has arrived, the other is on its way.

Meanwhile, our flight took off from Kuala Lumpur and landed in Jakarta. I noticed the elderly man and his son were making their way off the plane. The man had a smile on his face, like he was happy to be home at last.

He smiled at me. I smiled back.

The writer is a producer/presenter with SCTV. This article represents her personal opinions. She can be reached at sondang@alumni.northwestern.edu.

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